The Baker's Dozen - Survivor 31: Cambodia
Shoulda woulda coulda
By: Andy Baker | Published: December 13, 2015
Survivor: Cambodia Episode 13 recap/ analysis

Shoulda woulda coulda

1) Survivor is a game of regret.

Any game this complex, that has this many choices and only one winner, is going to leave all but the sole Survivor wondering what they could have done differently. It’s the dark side of the game’s inherent promise, that anyone can win; if that’s true, then every torch snuff, every vote for someone else at Final Tribal, is a visceral reminder that a player screwed up at some point on the journey. And that’s when a lifetime of What Ifs begins.

Imagine being one of the S2C cast members watching this season play out; their mistakes, both big and small, serve as dramatic fodder for the story the producers want to tell. They don’t show us all of it, of course, not even close. But I imagine every single member of the S2C cast has winced more than once when their mistakes were projected on millions of TV screens over the past thirteen weeks, all for our enjoyment.

That’s only the tip of the iceberg for these players, of course: S2C became S2GSurvivor: Second Guessing – way back in June and July. Since then, they’ve been assembling the narrative from the disjointed pieces that the other players were willing and able to share. But truth is an ever-elusive beast, and it is especially slippery when you’re attempting to recreate it from the eyewitness testimony of twenty self-interested players, all of whom had significantly subjective experiences; most of whom are hurt and bewildered and betrayed; and all of whom see things through lenses distorted by their own stories (and the need for those stories to be positive ones).

The simple, yet profound, reality about Survivor is this: No one will ever know what really happened out there.

The middle

2) Imagine going through a month-long transformative experience…

… and then spending three months trying to find out what the hell you just went through. And THEN imagine waiting, week by week, to see if the other players told you the truth. And THEN imagine trying to process the producers’ version of events, which, ironically enough, doesn’t have much to do with reality. And THEN imagine seeing your choices, your mistakes, your regrets, all shared, in high definition and occasionally including musical mockery, with the ten million people who watch. It’s enough to make you wonder why people play.

But play they do, and the game – which claims to last 39 days but goes on so much longer – doesn’t end on the island. This cast has been playing “shoulda woulda coulda” for nearly half a year now, wondering what they should have done, what moves would have made a difference, what they could have done to alter their fates. Indeed, five of the Final 6 are still actively doing so, anticipating how their decisions, and demises, will be depicted; only the winner is immune (and even that person is incredibly curious how his or her victory will be immortalized).


3) Which brings me at last to the point of this column.

So often, we focus on the edit to seek out clues about who wins and loses, scenes that prepare us for the endgame, all the while analyzing but not empathizing. What we point to and say, “That’s where Varner’s game fell apart!” is, for him, a permanent reminder of how his quest ended (made all the worse because the version we get cannot possibly capture the complexity of the games within the game). The shoulda woulda coulda moments are there to tell the tale, but we would do well to remember that a dream died that day. A morbid, overly sentimental way to look at it, perhaps, but no less true for the telling.

Anyway, I wax poetic, for the season is ending, and not just any season, but one for the ages. This is a great Final 6, and I feel we’re headed for one of the strongest Final 3’s the game has ever seen. Even the best of players have regrets, however, and it’s time that we take a look at the decisions that doomed a handful of those who remain.

And there is no better place to begin than with…


4) Spencer

… who really should have gone with Keith, Kelley, and Abi. If he sits at the Final Tribal Council next to Jeremy – as I suspect he will – you have to wonder if he watched the reward sequence and unleashed a torrent of Survivor-themed expletives like ‘Coachhole’ and ‘MotherRupert.’ That was a shoulda woulda coulda scene if ever there was one.

And yet, I understand at least some of the reasons why Spencer didn’t go that route:

  • First and foremost, it looks like Abi wasn’t willing to work within that four. The scene when Spencer, Keith, and Kelly were trying to convince Abi to join them had an air of desperation; Abi was agreeing, but it was with that Survivor-familiar “I’m saying what you want to hear” tone and body language. She ended up voting with the non-existent women’s alliance, so this whole alternative endgame idea may have been a non-starter.
  • Even if it WAS a possibility, that road would have been harder for Spencer: He would HAVE to win the F4 immunity challenge, and even though it is likely to suit his strengths (it will probably involve ladders, towers, slides, mazes, and/or puzzles), you never want to put yourself in a position of win or go home on Day 38 (Ozzy and Malcolm both lost the F4 challenge, a regret that undoubtedly haunts them both).
  • PlottingYou have to wonder if Spencer is taking a page from the Tony Vlachos playbook and keeping Jeremy in the game to be the F5/F4 target, just as Tony kept Spencer around to keep everyone preoccupied with the young lad instead of the construction worker/cop. It’s not a terrible idea. Only one problem: The other players still see Spencer as the more pressing problem, particularly Kimmi.
  • We have to keep in mind the human element of the game: If they had booted Tasha (remember, Spencer wanted her out before Jeremy), Spencer, more so than anyone else in the new alliance, would have had to deal with the fallout. It’s all too easy for us to say, “Suck it up, Spencer, it’s a game for a million dollars,” but we’re not the ones who would have to face the emotional devastation his betrayal would cause: Enduring an angry Kimmi and a seething Jeremy for multiple days – after a month of deprivation and paranoia – would be BRUTAL. If Spencer is haunted and affected by the ghosts of his Survivor past – and how could he not? – then he would recall how he and others treated Kass after she flipped on her alliance (which I am certain he laments). Psychologically speaking, to become the thing you once abhorred – to put oneself into a position to be treated as you, in a reaction that elicits shame and regret, treated someone else – is to risk shattering one’s self-image, and almost impossible for the psyche to accept and endure. In the end, I think Spencer is too kind to turn on Jeremy – and he can’t imagine being synonymous with Chaos Kass.

I do wonder, though, if, in hindsight, Spencer thinks he would have been better served by working with Kelley, Keith and Abi (even if that alliance never really got any traction). I’ll be sure to ask him about it at the finale after-party (more on that later). I’ll let you know what he says.


5) Kelley

Her regrets, I imagine, involve not committing to an alliance earlier.

Last week, there was a lot of Tribal talk about keeping your options open versus windows of opportunity, and the week before that we heard about blocs versus alliances and when you need to swap one for the other. In the end, it all comes down to issues of timing: When do you shift from “anybody but me” to “we’re in this together to the end”? When do you trade trysts for trust?

If you ask me, the window was already closing when the Kelley/Spencer/Keith/Abi deal was struck, and when Abi was voted out, it slammed shut.

Interestingly, there are four players heading into the finale who have been given Final 3 edits (based in part on confessional count):

  • Kelley has given us a winner quote and has offered her strategic opinions throughout the game (with the second most confessionals after Spencer).
  • Tasha has her “beg for forgiveness” storyline that suggests she’ll have to plead her case to the jury; her confessional count has spiked over the past few weeks, and she’s now #4 with a bullet.
  • Jeremy has quietly contributed to the season-long story from a position of power right from the start; or maybe NOT so quietly: he currently has the third highest number of confessionals.
  • Spencer has been linked with the Second Chance themes of growth and change from the outset, something he has talked (and talked and talked) about over the course of fifty confessionals; as the journey player who embodies what Probst and the producers think is special about this season, he has to provide the coda to the Second Chance symphony at Final Tribal.

(By contrast, Keith and Kimmi have fewer confessionals than Tasha – COMBINED.)

With four stories and three spots, though, one of these edits is lying to us. Given the rhetoric we’ve heard about putting blocs to bed and shifting to alliances, Kelley –who began the penultimate episode talking about keeping her options open – looks like she’s the one who gets left out. And really, when the dominant “We” votes out Abi (and her instability) over Kelley (and her endgame resume), I think they’re letting us know that they don’t see Kelley as much of a threat.

Side note: Once again, the player who thought she could control crazy ended up paying a steep price; Kelley thought she had Abi under her thumb, but Abi flipped, because that’s what she does and who she is, and now Kelley is in a LOT of trouble. So, let me say it once again, potential players: When Abi plays for the third time, VOTE HER OUT FIRST. If you don’t, some of you will pay.


6) Abi

I suppose I should talk about her for a moment.

I do wonder if Abi has enough self-awareness to identify her failings within the game and regret her decisions. Her approach – at least as she articulates it in confessionals – is so distressingly dichotomous: She sells herself as a goat, but she also believes that she can decide whom to take to the end. She enjoys watching players struggle and scramble – and rubbing it in, as she did with Savage – and yet she somehow believes that creating this chaos adds to, rather than subtracts from, her endgame résumé. She cannot handle being criticized by the other players, but hateful words erupt and ooze from her mouth like magma from a vile Brazilian volcano, and she appears to have no remorse about it (she believes that Tasha should have drowned? Really?).

Can Abi learn from her mistakes? Can she look at how Spencer, Kelley, and Keith talked about her on reward and realize that her approach to the game is fundamentally flawed? Can she cast an objective eye on her two seasons, play woulda coulda shoulda, figure out how the perfect goat could be blindsided so close to the end not once but twice, and someday play the game well and wisely?

I think you know my answer.


7) Tasha

Does Tasha regret not going with the women’s alliance, I wonder? Hard to say before we see how the finale plays out. To team up with Kimmi, Kelley, and Abi would have given Tasha more control of the game, and yet at this point – when Tasha was the one who decided that Abi should go – Tasha must feel that she’s guiding her alliance. And given the composition of that alliance, it’s reasonable for her to think that with six players left in the game, there are at least two far bigger threats to be targeted before anyone gets around to her. That’s the best of all endgame scenarios: To feel safe, while also thinking that you’re calling the shots.

The nature and depth of Tasha’s regret, assuming she has any, is dependent upon her plan: Does she want Kimmi and Kelley gone, so that she can make the “I’m the only woman left, and a woman should win this game” argument (at that point, the jury would have six women on it)? Is she planning on getting to the end with Kelley and Keith, but is thwarted along the way? If she wants to be in the Final 3 with Jeremy and Spencer, what’s her argument, that she survived Angkor and, even if the jury didn’t see it, she had the most influence over her alliance’s endgame decisions?

The empathy needed for honest self-perception this late in the game is always in short supply, and I have to think that Tasha – on Day 35 – believes, wrongly, that she’s got a good chance if she finds herself up against Spencer and Jeremy. I imagine that now, looking back – and with the clarity the episodes have provided – she sees some moments of woulda shoulda coulda. And it all starts with being willing to work with the women.

Side note: I think the Abi boot was all about removing Final 3 options for Spencer and Jeremy; Tasha wanted to eliminate any temptation to take the #DreamGoat to the end. It had little, perhaps nothing, to do with filling the Final Tribal Council seats with worthy players. Tasha wants one of those three seats, and will say whatever she needs to say to guarantee that her tail rests on one of them.


8) Keith

The duality of Keith Nale: I’m sure there are moments when he thinks, “I shoulda dialed it back a little in that reward challenge seeing as how they went after Joe for being good in ’em,” and yet the very next instant spits and then drawls, “Naaaaaw, I couldn’t a done that.” He’s a self-proclaimed competitor, and he simply can’t hold back, even when it would be in his best interest to do so. Like most Survivor players, he has defined the game in terms of his own strengths; to Keith, this is a month-long physical battle, against the elements, himself, and the other players. Let everyone else fill the days between challenges with that strategic nonsense; from where he sits, all that stuff does is get people into trouble. And it’s hard to argue with Nale logic: It’s gotten him this far – twice – hasn’t it?

In the end, though, that inability to sandbag must be his downfall, right? The other members of the Final 6 have repeatedly mentioned his challenge beastliness, and there are several players who will want and need that necklace in the Tribal Councils ahead. They’ll vote out Keith not because they fear him at the end, but because they fear he’ll keep them from getting there.

By the way, the next time anyone tries to tell you that Keith had a legitimate chance to be the Sole Survivor, all you need to say is this: On Day 33, Keith couldn’t remember Tasha’s name. His social game is bad, people; yes, he’s a nice guy, but he’ll never be connected enough to the players around him to get a jury (particularly one packed with returnees) to give him a million bucks. That’s one of the unsung reasons why you have to play the social-strategic game while you’re out there: People want to play with, and ultimately reward, the individuals who know them, see them, and understand them. Empathy, compassion, and love.


9) Kimmi

It is really hard to imagine what Kimmi might regret when we rarely see her on screen and almost never hear her talk.

She’s clearly got strong social connections – the other players see her as a mother, a wife, and a friend (she even held hands with Abi when Tasha was struggling in the water) – but we’re getting almost zero information about her overall game.

If this week’s promo is any indication, though – where we see her trying to orchestrate a blindside – I would imagine that Kimmi wishes she had made her move sooner.

F6 is such a tricky spot: you need four votes for a majority, any tight three-person alliance can hold fast and at least force a tie, and keeping anyone in the dark so that you can pull off a Cirie-style 3-2-1 vote is extremely difficult (and requires strategically underequipped players – which are in short supply this season).

I’ll write more in the prediction section below, but I think Kimmi is going to find that her move – which might have worked at F7 – is thwarted by idols and an alliance that no longer needs her.

As Cochran put it in his Final Tribal speech back in Caramoan, so much of the game comes down to timing. And really, is there any single facet of Survivor that factors into more player regrets? If only they had done this sooner… if only they had waited. Being good at the game is knowing what you need to do; being excellent is knowing who to do it with; being great is knowing precisely when to do it.

I have a feeling that Kimmi played a stronger game than we’re seeing… and that we’d be getting an entirely different edit if her timing had been better.


10) Jeremy

I’ve written about this before, but it bears repeating: When the players know that someone is a significant threat but they don’t make moves to take him out, that’s a sign of an exceptional social game. It’s yet another reminder how human Survivor is at its core: It is staggeringly difficult, and at times utterly unthinkable, to turn on someone after more than a month of trust and hope and faith. Sociopathic assassins like Brian Heidik are the exception, not the rule.

If we exercise our empathy and look at these players as people, here’s what we see:

  • During the post-merge game, Tasha has had alternative alliance options, but she has chosen instead to continue working with Jeremy.
  • Spencer could have flipped and worked with Kelley and Keith, but he didn’t; more importantly, if he HAD flipped, he said he wanted Tasha out before Jeremy.
  • Kimmi sees Spencer as the threat, not Jeremy.

Kelley and Keith are the only ones who see Jeremy as the enemy, but that’s because they see EVERYONE in that alliance as the enemy. Even so, they probably see him as a potentially compassionate co-conspirator, given the San Juan del Sur connection (and, for Keith, the whole firefighter fraternity thing). They, like everyone else, appear to have Jeremy NOT at the top of their hit list, even when we at home know that’s NUTS. When the gulf between our perception and that of players is this wide, when we want to yell at our screens to heed Ciera’s warning that Jeremy will win if you don’t DO SOMETHING, we have to understand that a player created the conditions under which smart players do dumb things. Earl did it in Fiji. Kim did it in One World. And now Jeremy is doing it in S2C.

The fact that Jeremy is convincing players to work against their own self-interest (they should all want him gone) – in a season full of smart and savvy returnees who should KNOW better – speaks volumes about the quality of his game. Even when he’s made moves to undermine the plans of others – as he did when he saved Stephen – they’ve forgiven him and kept him at the center of their strategies. If he gets to the end, he will have earned the landslide victory that awaits.

Side note: If you needed any more evidence that these players are going to unwisely include Jeremy in their Final 3 plans, we got it last Wednesday, when Jeremy told us that all he wanted was breakfast on Day 39 and a chance to plead his case to the jury. Why include that confessional if he doesn’t get there? I suppose it could be a massive misdirect, but it sure didn’t feel like it.


11) #DreamGoats

This totally needs to be added to the Survivor lexicon. Oh, and can we give this cast their own #Dirty30-style moniker? How about #BlocParty? I’m open to suggestions.

12) On a personal note…

… I’m going to be out in L.A. this week for the all of the finale shenanigans (I used to live and work out there back in my screenwriting days, so I have some close friends to visit, too). I haven’t yet found a way into the finale itself – if you have any leads, let me know! – but there are a couple of Survivor gatherings I plan on attending. I’ll also be meeting up with the Durham Warriors Survival Challenge steering committee to talk about next summer’s event (apply, dear readers, apply!).

Why do I mention this? Two reasons:

  • If you’re going to be out there and you’d like to meet up, please let me know!
  • If there are any questions you’d like me to ask the players, send ’em my way and I’ll see what I can do.


13) Prediction Time: It’s Jeremy’s Game to Lose

I suspect that we’re in for some fireworks in the Final 6 Tribal Council. Why else start the finale with six players? With that in mind…

As we saw in the “Next Week On” promo, it looks like Kimmi is making her move: She wants Kelley and Keith to join her as she tries to take out Spencer.

At Tribal Council, things go crazy:



  • Jeremy – who is wearing the immunity necklace – figures out what’s going on (I doubt Kimmi can hide her intentions under careful questioning from Probst, who won’t like that Spencer is in danger).
  • Jeremy protects Spencer with his idol (which would explain Jeremy’s comment that he’d be willing to use an idol to save Spencer).
  • Seeing that Spencer is safe, and worried that she was targeted by the opposing alliance, Kelley plays her idol.
  • The votes are read, and – in the historic Survivor first that Probst has been pimping – all of the votes are nullified by the two idols.
  • Only Kimmi, Keith, and Tasha are vulnerable on the re-vote.
  • Tasha, worried that she might be in danger, angry that Kimmi tried to eliminate Spencer, and eager to remove F3 options for Jeremy, ruthlessly throws Kimmi under a tuk-tuk. (This would be the gameplay that she has telling us from the start of the season she needs forgiveness for.)
  • On the re-vote, Kimmi goes home.

At F5, Keith would likely be the target, because the rest of them will fear that they need the necklace at F4.

As absurd as it sounds, I think Kelley, Tasha, and Spencer all have reason to believe that they can win against each other… they just need Jeremy gone.

And Jeremy likely knows that he can beat anyone if he’s sitting at the Final Tribal Council; he just needs to get there.

The easy answer for how Jeremy gets to the end would be that he wins the F4 immunity challenge. While that might be the case, Spencer will be the prohibitive favorite given what the challenge is likely to be (involve ladders, towers, slides, mazes, and/or puzzles).

But here’s the thing: I don’t want Jeremy to win the F4 immunity necklace.

I want the true test of Survivor greatness: Can a vulnerable Jeremy convince Tasha and Spencer to take him to the end, even when they shouldn’t?

I think he can.


That’s it for this edition of The Baker’s Dozen – if you’d like to keep the conversation going, leave a comment below!

Andy Baker Survivor recapsAndy Baker When he’s not blogging about Survivor, Andy Baker helps run a Survivor-based LRG and is podcasting about TV shows. Which is to say he spends entirely too much time in front of the TV, typing on his laptop and muttering about bad narrative decisions.

Andy can be found on twitter: @B13pod.